Archived Mountain Voices

Evening gosbeaks to make rare appearance

Evening Grosbeak. National Audubon Society photo Evening Grosbeak. National Audubon Society photo

“Seen for the first time amid the snows of winter and against a background of darkling pines these strange and beautiful waifs of the northland seem somehow out of place, as would some rare and singular exotic plant blossoming in ... winter.” — Dr. Elliot Coues, Birds of North America (1925)

Head up bird watchers! According to a recent news release posted online at eBird — an excellent source of information sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — advised that early “observations are hinting at the largest movement of Evening Grosbeaks in the Northeast in more than a decade.” 

Each year some birds that breed far to the north choose to overwinter here in the southern mountains. Winter residents that come readily to mind are ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, purple finches, and fox, white-throated, and swamp sparrows. Hermit thrushes, pine siskins, and red crossbills are often listed as winter residents, but this is not totally accurate since these species do breed frequently in the southern mountains.

One of the most spectacular of our winter residents is an unreliable visitor. Some years nary an evening grosbeak is to be seen. (That was Elizabeth’s and my experience in 1998-99.) Other years they seem to be everywhere.  Ornithologists designate peak years as “light years” and massive southward movements as “irruptions.” Other bird species that periodically irrupt southward in great numbers include white-winged crossbills and northern goshawks.  John C. Kricher describes the phenomenon in A Field Guide to Eastern Forests of North America (1988):

“These dramatic mass movements ... are unusual both because they involve large numbers of birds and because, unlike migration, they are not generally predictable .... There is no local indication that an irruption will occur....  The appearance of irruptive species is called a ‘flight year’ ... thought to be caused by periodic unpredictable food shortages in the breeding ranges of these species. Seed-eating species may irrupt in years following the cessation of masting. Many young are produced when seeds abound during masting, producing an over population. When the seed crops drop precipitously, seed-dependent species ... are forced southward. Not all individuals of the irruptive species leave the nesting areas, however. Irruptive flocks tend to be comprised predominantly of young birds. Of adults, females seem to outnumber males, although data are not well established on this point.”

(George Ellison is a naturalist and writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Leave a comment

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.